CRTC bill of rights neglects cell phone, Internet users

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The Canadian Radio-Telecommunications Commission’s (CRTC) legalese-free “bill of rights” – covering local telephone service – has been lauded as a pro-consumer initiative.

While it’s certainly that, the bill, released early this week, falls short as it fails to offer protections to the growing number of cell phone and Internet service consumers, says a consumer advocacy group.

A key benefit of the new “bill” is that it untangles confusing rules and regulations that consumers had to wade through.

“It was a sorely needed initiative,” said John Lawford, counsel for the Public Interest Advocacy Centre in Ottawa. But protections offered by the bill, he said, should also be extended to cell phone and Internet users.

The CRTC, on Tuesday, restated key consumer rights relating to local home phone service, in clear and understandable terms. Traditional telephone companies were directed to include this statement of consumer rights on their Web site, and their residential telephone directories.

Barb Cram, a commissioner with the federal telephony watchdog, said the statement clarifies key consumer rights including: the right to a local telephone service, to choose a phone company, to confidentiality, and to register a dispute or complaint.

“These are not new rights, but rather a consolidation and restatement of terms established back in the 1980s,” Cram clarified. “Some terms were incomprehensible. We’ve reworded these in ways the common person can easily understand.”

The rules only apply to incumbent phone companies such as Bell Canada in Ontario. Competitors such as Rogers, Primus and Vonage are not covered.

PIAC’s Lawford sees this as “unfair” to the competitors’ customers. “Competitors have been getting a virtually regulation-free ride,” he said. (See related story: CRTC rules make no sense)

Competition will drive the phone companies to provide better service and lower prices in such a situation,” said Cram.

Lawford, however, warned it could result in further erosion of consumer protection. “Service might be cheaper, but there would be fewer restrictions on how providers treat some customers.”

He said people with low credit ratings might find it hard to obtain phone service or might be required to pay higher deposits.

Lawford also rued the absence of regulation covering the cellular and Internet service provider (ISP) markets. “The area is so far off the CRTC radar right now.”

For instance, consumers are often required to pay exorbitant break-up fees if they decide to terminate their cell phone subscription before their contract expires, he said.

Lawford said his organization has been receiving an increasing number of calls from cell phone and Internet users who complain about billing errors, disconnections, or bad service. “For every caller complaining about landline service, we receive around five calls from cell phone users.”

He said the rights for traditional phone service users “is a good baseline” for similar regulations covering the cellular and Internet markets.

However, he believes calling for regulation of these services “will be like paddling up a creek” as the concerned government agencies are not inclined to deal with this issue.

Lawford said when Industry Canada came out with a telecommunications policy review in February this year, it did not mention any need to regulate cell phone and Internet service providers.

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